Part 1: The Art of Being Commissioned: Little Boxes…


In the first of a series of posts the United Nations of Photography Curator and Founder Grant Scott looks at the realities of the state of photographic commissioning in 2014.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside, 
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one,
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky,
And they all look just the same.
Malvina Reynolds. 1962

How do you start a discussion on the current state of the fine art of commissioning editorial photography in the Twenty First Century? Each time I bought my fingertips down onto the small plastic letter embossed squares that constitute my laptop keyboard the word that kept repeating in my mind was boxes, little boxes, digitally created boxes. The home of the photograph in 2014, the four sided retainer and confiner of the photographic image within design software packages around the world.

The advent of the box as a home for the photograph within the now much maligned, once ubiquitous design package Quark Express first appeared in the early Nineties and was to me the beginning of the end for photographic commissioning. Of course there are many other major contributing factors  of which ever diminishing budgets, descending revenues, copyright grabs and photographically disengaged commissioners are at the forefront – all to be discussed in depth in later posts I can assure you – however, in my opinion it is the humble box that needs to be discussed first to find some understanding of where we are and how we got here.

Why? Because the arrival of the ‘photobox’ marked the beginning of the perception of the photographic image as being purely content. The image no longer defined its creative use, the box now defined that use, the crop, the scale, the importance of the image. The box was drawn and it needed to be filled. The box demanded content. Those who commissioned sought to fill the box.

You may feel that I am placing too much emphasis on our four-sided friend but as an art director at the time I was only too aware of this thought shift and the impact it had then and continues to have on the mind set of many of those in a position to commission.

A recent discussion with a commissioner of magazine photography brings my belief into sharp focus. The magazine is no longer designed as a response to the images commissioned. Each page is now templated. Each page is constructed of a series of boxes. The images commissioned must fit into those boxes. This is a state of commissioning that is widespread within the UK magazine industry where designers are often lowly paid, lacking design experience and given little if any respect by editors with limited visual experience scared of upsetting their management teams by taking creative decisions or risks. The photographer is expected to create the images to fill these templates, to provide the content for the boxes without comment or complaint.

If this is news to you then wait there is worse to come. The editor of this particular magazine in question has now suggested that the commissioner choose two or three layouts with the editor that they both feel have been ‘successful’ to give photographers to replicate. The layout is the successful element the boxes are the success, the images a success because of the placement of the boxes. The commissioned photograph is therefore commissioned not to lead the visual identity of the magazine but to fit into a pre-ordained structure based upon a collection of boxes. The box is king in the scared world of editorial production in 2014.

I know that this is not the case with all magazines but I am sure that many of you reading this will recognize titles you have worked with or know of where these practices are to the fore.

So where does this leave those of us who still see the magazine format as a vital platform for our photographic endeavors for which we are appropriately recompensed? Sadly, I believe that as photographers our expectations of what a commissioned shoot will give us have to be tempered by a realistic understanding of the situation we are accepting when we say yes to the commission.

We can no longer expect our work to be handled with sensitivity and understanding by an art department or editor. We can no longer expect to receive well-designed tear sheets. We can no longer expect creative freedom to be given to us by confident engaged commissioners. We can no longer expect any involvement in the way in which our images are used.

However, through understanding comes realization and informed decision making. So if you decide to accept an editorial commission, think carefully about the importance of the box to the person who is commissioning you. Ask them about their use of templates. Ask who has the final decision over which images will be published and perhaps most importantly of all decide if you are happy to accept the way of the box.

© Grant Scott 2014

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